One in three people globally suffers from at least one form of malnutrition, and the economic loss attributable to bad nutrition is estimated at US$ 3.5 trillion per year. Recent research on the worldwide burden of disease found that a suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk, including smoking. As a global health issue, there is no more critical issue to be addressed by the world’s parliaments.
To address the challenge, the IPU has published its 32nd Handbook for Parliamentarians, Food Systems and Nutrition, to provide lawmakers with practical guidance on legislative processes that prioritize nutrition. The handbook was produced in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization and in collaboration with the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, the World Heath Organization, United Nations Children's Fund and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.
After decades of steady decline, since 2014 the percentage of people globally who are undernourished has been on the rise. In 2019 this reached 8.9 per cent of the world’s population, or 690 million people. Worldwide, 144 million children under 5 years of age are stunted (low height for age), 47 million children are wasted (low weight for height), and the prevalence of anaemia among women of reproductive age is 32.8 per cent of the world’s women. This situation creates a major barrier to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
However, malnutrition is not just about hunger. Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and nutrients. The term addresses four broad groups of conditions: 1) undernutrition; 2) micronutrient deficiencies and excesses; 3) overweight and obesity; and 4) diet-related non-communicable diseases. As so described, no country is untouched by its devastating effects.
Feeding the hungry alone is not enough; people need nourishment from healthy diets to address all the different forms of malnutrition. Delivering such healthy diets requires a holistic approach that supports diets made up of foods that promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and well-being. This approach must incorporate the entire food system – food production, processing, distributing, marketing, supplying, eating and disposal. Every aspect of the food system must align to support good nutrition; single interventions in isolation will likely have limited impact.
The emergence of COVID-19 has shown the weakness in our food systems. Disruptions in the systems can increase the risk of pushing millions into a state of food insecurity and poverty.
Parliamentarians can play a major role in improving food systems in their respective countries, and the handbook identifies entry points for parliamentary interventions to bring that about. Recommended actions are described in these entry points using existing case studies, which cover the following four areas:
1. Representation. Parliamentarians must stay engaged with their constituents to know their needs and to advocate for their welfare. They can collaborate with advocacy groups, international organizations to stay informed of the pressing issues related to nutrition and food systems.
2. Legislation. Parliamentarians should be fully aware of, but not be deterred by, the complex causes leading to all forms of malnutrition. Enacting appropriate laws should be prioritized as determined by the level of need, the scale and scope of problems, and cost-effectiveness.
3. Budget. There are multiple steps in the budget cycle – planning, negotiation, spending, and review – at which parliament and parliamentarians can place nutrition and food systems foremost in budget-related decisions.
4. Oversight. Parliamentarians can establish clear oversight processes by which to ensure appropriate resources are provided to implement nutrition-related programmes, assess the impact and identify unintended negative effects on nutrition of government policies and actions in all sectors, and monitor progress towards meeting national and international commitments.